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My week On Rue Tatin

Many of you know I attended a cooking class in Normandy last October with Susan Herrmann Loomis, celebrated chef, instructor and cookbook/memoir author. But I wanted to share the details of the week, as well as the marvelous takeaways. I wrote a guest post for Susan’s blog, detailing my week as a student at On Rue Tatin. It was a dream cooking, learning, eating and drinking my way through Louviers, and I tried to convey why On Rue Tatin and Susan Herrmann Loomis are so very special and why you should book yourself on the next flight to France.

Read the post here.

There’s No Place Like Home

I just returned from the first hometown visit with my boyfriend. Carl gets a rose, meshing with my family in myriad ways, from drinking a beer with my stepdad Jim while being treated to a tour of his gun racks, to marveling over the details of my dad’s train layout, to running a 5K (his first!) with my dad at the crack of dawn.

He’s a keeper.

But I already knew that. What I didn’t know is how other parts of the trip would burrow under my skin like swimmer’s itch throughout our few days in Southwestern Michigan.

With a flash thunderstorm quashing a beach glass hunt, we had some time to kill. Under grey skies, I asked Carl if he wanted to see the house where I spent my teenage years with mom and Aunt Vikki, her “business partner.” I’m writing a memoir about what when on inside the house, and that’s a story for another day. But outside the house offers its own tragic tale.

Driving over the Bicentennial Bridge, the bustling Caucasian streets of St. Joseph quickly gave way to a quiet, foreboding landscape. I became monosyllabic, retreating to my internal crawl space. As I drove towards 709 Colfax over uneven streets cracked, rutted, and neglected, Carl’s mouth dropped.

“Holy shit,” he said. Then, every minute or so, he would ask me to slow down. My inclination was to speed up and get the hell out of there. It’s the same instinct that sent me fleeing, car doors locked, as soon as I graduated from high school.

I lived in a ghetto. People don’t believe me, thinking I’m prone to hyperbole when describing the area of Benton Harbor where I grew up. With wide eyes and two words, Carl validated my entire adolescent experience. Holy shit.

I lived in fear from 12 to 18. Thirty years later, Carl saw exactly the same bleak dystopian vision I accelerated through.

709 Colfax itself is still in pretty good shape for its surroundings. There’s no junk around it, paint isn’t peeling, it looks lived in. But neighboring houses tell a different story. My junior high was just blocks away, but to get there meant traveling over pavement with weeds sprouting through the cracks, past houses boarded up, burnt down, or with black windows and little apparent life. Mom drove me those few short blocks every morning. After school, I boarded Dial-a-Ride, a bright red short bus that broadcast my shame to my classmates. During recess, teachers doubled as guards as we set up yellow metal barriers on either end of the street so we could play four square without interruption. The red ball might have sometimes hit outside our squares but it never bounced past those barriers. We ran like the dickens to grab them before we jeopardized our safety beyond this makeshift fence.

My spidey sense was finely tuned by the age of 12. I’ll never know the fear and anxiety that African-Americans deal with on a daily basis, but I do know how it feels to be a lone 12-year-old white girl in a plaid uniform skirt in a predominantly black neighborhood.

For better or worse, I carry that frozen little girl inside me still.

Driving at a snail’s pace, I drove beyond St. John’s church until I hit Pipestone Road. Here, Carl gasped at a once-grand Craftsman, roof caved in and burnt beyond repair. A majestic Victorian with a carriage house tucked behind it lay fallow, as if waiting for someone to arrive who could grow new life on the grounds. The one well-maintained house had a chain-link fence surrounding the property.

“I can’t believe these abandoned houses are still here,” he said. “There’s no money to tear them down or fix them up,” I replied. My stepmother explained later that the city received a grant to raze the houses and turn them into empty lots but that only 80 had been removed to date and time on the grant was running out.

Benton Harbor’s “arts district,” just across the river from vacation haven St. Joe, now features a handful of charming pubs and shops in refurbished brick buildings that harken back to a once-prosperous era. The Livery contains an elevator that used to raise and lower wagons and horses; how nifty is that? There was no such hipster hangout when I was a teenager. Instead, I worked in the children’s department at the public library. It is located a stone’s throw away from this gentrifying area. Even though it was across the street from the police station, I always walked to my car with another employee, my key-cum-shank poking out through tense fingers.

That old fear was still palpable as Carl and I drove, doors locked, through the sorry streets. We’d occasionally see signs of life, such as it was, dark faces staring blankly above inert bodies sweating in the post-storm humidity.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. It looks how I imagine New Orleans looks,” Carl said, adding, “Post-Katrina” for clarification.

I got it loud and clear. The town, named worst place to live in the US by Money magazine in 1989, looks like the universe took an eraser to it but got distracted by another worthwhile project. Some houses have been rubbed out but detritus has been left behind.

Gripping the steering wheel of our rental car, I became overwrought, holding back tears as the man I plan to grow old with saw for himself why I’ve always felt so ancient. He got me on a profound level. Living behind locked doors wears on the soul, slowly eroding it like waves lapping against sand. Writing my memoir has been fruitful at times but it’s never been easy or joyous. As I dip into my memories, I also tap into a well of feeling. I am tethered to this neglected city, even as I’ve flown upwards and away. Driving down Britain and Catalpa, Pipestone and Colfax, I Benjamin Buttoned myself back to 16. All that angsty energy and emotionality bubbled to the surface. Home may be the same, but I’m not. Now, I’m using self-awareness and acceptance, not fear, to propel me forward. I’m not running away, I’m absorbing the power of this place to take me to a new place where I can truly soar.

There’s no place like home—and maybe that’s a good thing.

(image: prwatch.org)

The Season of the Witch

My week at On Rue Tatin, Susan Herrmann Loomis’ cooking school in Normandy, was downright magical.

I’m not kidding.

Yes, there was the fois gras and the crème Anglaise and the moule frites and Tarte Tatin and all good things that we prepared and then ate. There were fresh pastries from a different bakery awaiting me each morning, afternoon walks through worn cobbled streets, a tuxedo cat named Coco.

Dreamy, yes. But things didn’t turn freaky deaky until late one night as we rubbed our full bellies and drank the last of the evening’s wine.

A formidable group gathered around the table. First and foremost, force of nature Susan, our hostess/guide/cooking goddess. Then there was my fellow student Doug, a lovely New Yorker who, after suffering some loss in his family, was treating himself to a week at On Rue Tatin, which had long been on his bucket list since reading Susan’s charming food memoir years before. And then there was Carolyn, an American who visits Louviers each Fall. This year, however, she was cutting her trip short to go to the South of France to study medical French for a gig with Doctors without Borders.

It gets better. She told us that she was trying to fit in a session with Martine, a local massage therapist/psychic, before she left town. The previous year, Martine told her during a treatment that in a past life Carolyn had been a Norman man who killed his brother and had to flee the country and spent his life trying to make amends and pining for Normandy. That’s why Carolyn was drawn to the region and pursuing work with Médecins sans Frontières.

Maybe it was the wine, but I had to get in on this. This trip of a lifetime would not be complete without my own session with Martine.

Fast forward to a few days later. During our afternoon break, I walked a few blocks to an apothecary shop and climbed the stairs to a small room on the second floor where Martine was waiting. A squat woman with frosted tips that made her short hair look like sparkly wheat stalks, Martine spoke essentially no English. Between my Franglais and our mutual gesturing, we figured things out. I assumed the usual massage position on the table and received an oily rubdown. Then silence. I am legally blind without my glasses so when I opened one eye, I could see her hazy figure sitting on a chair at the foot of the table. She was just watching me, or at least I think she was.

I was acutely uncomfortable, reminded of the one time I tried a meditation class. With my eyes closed for a few minutes, I got nauseous, as if my mind was trying to keep me from calm. As then, my mind and even my body started working against me. I fidgeted. Crazy thoughts raced through my head. The soles of my feet suddenly felt as if they were on fire, as if Martine had just lit a match under them. Before I left for France, I had a dream about Joan of Arc being burned at the stake in nearby Rouen so I had a brief thought that I was Jeanne d’Arc reincarnate.

Then Martine started talking. Even without my glasses, I understood what was coming out of her mouth.

“You have no confidence.”
“You don’t love the little girl inside you.”
“You are sexually shut down.”
“You don’t love yourself.”

Fuuucccckkkkk.

In an hour with English not even as a second, third, or fourth language, Martine tapped into all the shame I have spent a lifetime hiding, often from myself. With her French frankness, she brought to the surface issues I only recently had been able to talk about with my leadership coach, with whom I’ve been working for a decade. She gave me some visualization exercises for each of my issues—one involving picturing a red disk the size of a CD spinning three times clockwise over my girl parts—so she didn’t think me completely hopeless.

I broke down. I barely kept it together while she was talking to me, bawling, howling, and screaming like a banshee as soon as she exited the room. The dam broke, and all my disconsolation flooded through me and out my tear ducts.

How was it possible that I was carrying all this crap around, so close to the surface that a stranger in a foreign land could pick up on all of it? I felt broken, like a doll on the Island of Misfit Toys, defective and rejected before I even had the chance to be embraced and loved.

Silently weeping, I left the apothecary shop and wandered the streets of Louviers as a light rain began to fall over the ancient roofs. I felt as old as my surroundings.

I left Normandy that week unsettled and untethered, and convinced Martine was a witch (Louviers held witch trials in the mid-17th century). Traveling solo in France with really rusty language skills, I was already out of my comfort zone. My session with Martine forced me into internal foreign territory. Maybe I needed to break down to break through my crap. And maybe unfamiliar surroundings helped me do that. I don’t know if I have figured out everything Martine was trying to tell me but I do know that I met the love of my life three weeks after my session with Martine and he makes my head, heart, and everything else spin.

The pod person cometh

Now that I’ve outed myself as a woman in love, let me let you in on another dirty little secret: I’m afraid of turning into one of those people who turn their backs on their friends as they retreat further and further into their relationship.

I’m afraid of becoming a pod person.

That’s what I call them, those people who share an e-mail account, don’t go anywhere without their partner, are rarely available for a planned evening out, heaven forbid something spontaneous. Nesters.

Now, on the other side of the relationship fence, I see that these people are happy, content. But I can’t shake the feeling that they are also hella-lame. My friends have been paramount in my life, inspiring, buoying, humoring me. I refuse to let that change or let those relationships erode.

But things have changed. While I am still in touch with friends and we regularly get together, I don’t have the same drive. I have become, at 47, that happy woman.

It’s so weird.

People admire my vast social circle, or circles as the Venn diagram may be, but those people who marvel at my busy schedule are usually coupled up. I had to have a lot of friends and a lot of happy hour and shopping and mani-pedi and writing and movie dates. I needed to go to networking events, if not for the business contacts, for the conversation. I got monthly massages for tendons that snapped loudly when manipulated but I also sought rubdowns just for the human touch. As a perpetually single gal, getting my flesh pressed was a rare-to-nonexistent occurrence unless I coughed up a Benjamin every now and again.

The alternative was sitting at home, cat and computer on my lap, even on a Friday night.

Then I met Carl and my social circle sort of wobbled as all my needs were met on the homefront. I’ve been keeping it going, don’t get me wrong, but seasons have passed before seeing pals that I was used to seeing on a monthly basis. There are friends who I haven’t actually seen in person since I met Carl on November 8. I’ve been throwing relationship Band-Aids at them in the form of texts, e-mails and the occasional phone call but I fear the friendships are suffering as I snuggle up in my cozy pod.

Sigh.

I’m human. I fell in love and in the process, fell into a warm, satisfied life. No one is more surprised about that than me. My friends, however, are a key piece of what fulfills me so I’m going to pick up the phone but this time to make plans for lunch and gabbing and pedicures. A woman in love needs to have a polished pedi, sure, but she absolutely must have her peeps.

Taking flight

I’m usually a content machine, but sometimes life gets in the way.

In other words, I fell in love.

Fell deliriously, deliciously, full-heartedly in love. I know! I can’t believe it, either. Me! A snarky middle-aged singleton whose hope was ebbing away a little with each passing year. Like the Grinch, when I met the guy, my heart grew three sizes that day.

As my heart and my life became full, my writing seemed less important. With a popular book and blog called Things I Want to Punch in the Face, I was suddenly at a loss. I couldn’t muster up more than tepid irritation over anything, and that’s saying something, seeing as Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump exist. I’ve been writing a memoir about my teenage years, which seemed farther and farther away as my lovely new life left less and less room for memories and musings.

Instead of writing, I spent time with my guy, finding ways to be brave off the page. We traveled to a remote island in the South Pacific, where I drove a scooter and snorkled for the first time, trading in my anxiety for wind in my hair and tropical fish before my eyes. When I got bit by a 200-pound trevalley, I gave Blackjack the finger. Our boat captain taped up my bleeding middle finger and put a work glove over it and I got back in the water. I wasn’t going to miss seeing a giant clam.

I generally feel alive, present and engaged on the page, as words unspool from my fingertips. Here, now, I was bruised and scraped and bleeding and I didn’t feel like writing about it. I felt like living through it.

Since then, I ziplined despite my decades-long fear of falling. I loved it. I know! I was shocked too. I was prepared to say, “I told you so! I told you I’d hate this!” but instead, with a toothy smile plastered across my face, I said, “Let’s do it again!”

Through all this, the biggest big-girl step isn’t strapping myself into a zipline and praying to sweet Jesus not to toss my cookies or fall to my death; it’s letting myself be completely, joyously smack dab in the middle of a relationship with the love of my life. I’m letting myself be loved, even if I deep down doubt I deserve it. I have no plan B, no safety net. I’m all in.

That is some scary shit.

But as I told him yesterday, there’s a beautiful giddiness that constantly runs through my body because of him. My toes curl, my stomach flutters with butterflies taking flight. To paraphrase a card I gave him, “he makes me feel as if kittens are exploding out of my head.” But I also feel calm, grounded, certain.

Ben Affleck said in the screen gem Bounce, “It’s not brave if you’re not afraid.” Well, I’m going to continue being brave in my life and as I turn my attention back to my computer screen, I’m going to bring that attitude into my writing. Stay tuned for the next installment of my glorious adventure.

A little knife music

I’m a phoney foodie, a phoodie if you will. I’ve swooned over a perfect sticky spicy bite of charred octopus at Pomerol, I’ve wanted to take a long walk off a short pier if it meant I could dive into a bowl of Momofuku ramen. I might even pee a little when I get a chance to tuck into a slice of Whidbey’s marionberry pie. Yes, marionberry is not just a former coke-snorting mayor.

Get it? I love food. Food that’s so perfectly what it was destined to be, whether that’s slow-cooked pulled pork or the most delicate Grand Marnier soufflé with hot caramel sauce that I ate earlier this evening at Violin d’Ingres. I’ve learned a lot by watching Top Chef. I’ve cut my teeth on amazing restaurants and out of the way treasures.

But let’s be honest. I can’t cook. I can follow a few recipes over and over, so much so that I have some signature dishes. But they aren’t fancy. My lasagna’s secret ingredient is cottage cheese—and requires no creativity or skill on my part.

I have zero knife skills. I don’t own a Vitamix and I don’t care that my counter isn’t chockablock with colorful Kitchenaid appliances. I actually want to punch pretentious foodies in the face when they want to fancy-pants up my mac and cheese.

But I do love to eat, so I’m going to the belly of la bête and taking a weeklong cooking class in Normandy starting on Monday. Chef and author Susan Herrmann Loomis runs On Rue Tatin out of a converted convent in the village of Louviers (that’s her in the photo). The focus is on apples, and we’ll drink cavaldos, learn to navigate the farmers market in nearby Rouen under the shadow of its famous cathedral, drink wine, eat cheese, cook.

While I suspect my knife skills will only marginally improve, my understanding of food and cooking will deepen. I’m also pretty sure I’ll hit my kitchen and local farmers market, infused with a new curiosity and passion for more. More instruction, more cooking, more bites out of what is a most delicious life.

Bon appetit!

 

 

Channeling my inner Frenchwoman

My first trip to Paris was really before the age of blogs and smart phones took hold. I know; hard to imagine. It was 2003 and it was my very first trip outside of North America. I went with my friend Fil, a seasoned traveler, who gamely let me drag her all over the city. In a week, we hooved it to the top of the Eiffel Tower and L’Arc de Triomphe. We sped through the Louvre and lingered in the Musée d’Orsay. We ventured into a far-flung arrondissement to hit a flea market that snaked along a neighborhood street for a mile.

Then were there the churches. Notre Dame, Saint-Chapelle, Sacré Coeur. We ate pretty crappy meals because we didn’t prepare or research. We shopped, we sat in cafés for café au laits and pain au chocolats. We rode in a bateau mouche down the Seine, passing under one famous bridge after another in the soft dusky light. I took lots of photos with black-and-white film. Yes, film.

I was manic.

I had to see everything for fear that it might be my only time there, or anywhere for that matter. I was sightseeing out of fear. It was only when I stepped into the dark recesses of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, dotting my forehead with holy water, that I calmed the fuck down. I was in the oldest church in Paris, established in 542 with the present church dating to the 11th century.

“Perspective, Jen,” I told myself. “This moment, right now, here, in this holy place, is what matters.”

I left there altered, and walked to nearby Les Deux Magots for another frothy mug of café and started really breathing in Paris. I stopped feeling on the clock and started feeling in the world.

I hope I can set that intention here, now, at my layover at Schiphol Airport, so that I can savor every last morsel of ma belle vie.

After weeks of stress and preparation, I can feel anxiety ebbing away, being replaced with a lovely sort of “come what may.” Maybe my American energy is surrendering to the charm of French puttering, of a lingering pace and pulse of life.

All that’s left to do is to cue some Edith Piaf and peace out.

An obsessive-compulsive goes abroad

My friend Kathy asked me today what I need to feel safe and secure while traveling. I didn’t even have to think twice.

“I have to keep things organized. I have to stick to my rituals.” As an example, I don’t let anything stray more than a couple of feet from my suitcase (shoes get lined up next to the suitcase, toiletries are corralled into a tight formation on the bathroom counter). I just heard an interview with David Sedaris, who said he does the exact same thing when traveling to avoid leaving anything behind. I found this incredibly comforting.

My OCD starts way before I buckle into my cramped seat in coach. I think about this shit ALL the time as I prepare for a trip. My mind, when it sees an opening, beelines toward obsession. As you can imagine, a two-week trip to France with multiple stops is catnip for my OCD.

First come the lists.
My packing list, my “things to do before I go” list, my “things to do and see and eat when I am en France” list, my “people to buy souvenirs for and send postcards to” list. You get the idea.

I like everything about lists. I like to check and cross items off them. I like to revise and rewrite lists, creating various subheads and columns. The whole process calms and reassures.

Then comes the packing.
The shoes take precedence. Sadly, as I’ve marched on wobbly heels into the plantar fasciitis and brittle bones of middle age, I have to rethink my take on shoes that show off my figure and opt instead for sensible brogues that will suffer the cobblestones of Paris. #firstworldproblem, je sais.

I’ve added a new wrinkle to my packing plan. At this moment, I’m wearing three pieces that I plan on taking with me. As I dressed in this outfit of cargo pants, sweater, and drapey jacket, I had a sad epiphany. “Over the next week, I’ll try wearing all the items I plan on packing to see if they really work with each other and are worthy of claiming a spot in the rolly bag!” At this point, I realized I had ascended to a new level in my compulsive planning, much like Tom Cruise becoming an Operating Thetan Level 8.

In a word, crazytown.

But I own my choices, both in life and my wardrobe. So after I’ve roadtested outfits, I’ll turn my attention to actually packing the suitcase.

With the help of aforementioned friend Kathy, a world-traveler with impeccable taste and an enviable jewelry collection, I’ll lay things out on my bed to optimize garments’ and accessories’ mix and matchability. We will edit things down mercilessly, until we have the most versatile and practical garments, scarves, hats, and jewelry.

Once something makes the cut, it will get rolled up tightly and without wrinkles and put in the carry-on bag, starting with heavy items like jeans and shoes (stuffed with socks or small wrapped gifts) on the bottom and working up through t-shirts and unmentionables. I leave careful ruts for my makeup bag and stuff extra Ziploc bags in the suitcase flap. Over this glorious mess, I lay my empty duffle, deflated but full of the promise of Parisian purchases.

I close the top of the suitcase and then pray that I can shut the fucker. It’s expandable, but I only want to use those extra inches on the way back, when I plan on loading it up with French skincare and body products and perfume and checking the bag. At that point, the poor Samsonite will resemble my favorite pair of teenage Guess jeans, with all my stuff straining against the seams as I struggle to zip it closed. But in this instance, laying on the floor isn’t going to do much good.

Then comes the checking and rechecking.
Do I really have my boarding pass, passport, and all the other things that I find necessary to travel with these days without incurring massive anxiety? Did I really set my phone alarm properly? I always sleep horribly before every early morning flight, kept awake by the possibility of an iPhonefail, where my alarm—the one that I checked at least three times before I turned off the light—didn’t for once go off. Laying there in the dark, eyes wide open, I figure I can avoid caffeine and just sleep on the flight. Then I turn the light back on and check that I packed Ambien in my carry-on bag.

In addition to normal stuff like snacks and Ibuprofin, for this trip I’m also packing:

  • Febreze
  • Band-Aids
  • My vintage Pucci scarf (to pull the eyes up from those flat-heeled wingtips)
  • Empty nylon Sportsac duffle (for bringing back all my loot)
  • Some cash to convert (in the rare instance my ATM card doesn’t work at Charles de Gaulle)
  • Small guidebook and map
  • Digestive enzymes, Prilosec, Tums and green powder (acid reflux + wine + cheese = heaven on a plate, hell in the gut)
  • Stevia packets for all those cafés au lait
  • Lock for my suitcase (in case I store my bags at a hotel before check in)
  • Una’s wrist warmers (so my hands are warm while fingers can hunt and gather)

For the plane:

  • Antihistamines (after one stealth sinus infection mid-flight, I’m taking no chances)
  • Knitting project (small shawl pattern that fits in a quart Ziploc)
  • 1-2 books
  • Heavy clothing (While traveling, I wear my bulkiest items, like overcoat and knee-high boots, to free up room in the suitcase)
  • Shawl (doubles as a blanket or pillow)
  • iPhone (loaded with podcasts and the Learn French app to practice phrases and pronounciation when I have WIFI)
  • laptop & hard copy of my memoir in progress (in case muse strikes)

I’m obsessive, compulsive, and neurotic, but I’ve learned to use it for good over evil. Do you overthink your travel? What makes you feel safe and secure while traveling?

How to host a public reading

I was thrilled to be invited to write a post for Hedgebrook’s blog. I discussed the terror and the thrill that comes with sharing new work. And I offer up concrete tips for hosting your own public reading.

Reading from my work-in-progress puts me one step further on my path to publishing my memoir. Setting up a reading is, in some ways, straight-up event planning, something that appeals to the OCD detail-oriented control freak in me. But as someone stepping up to the mic as well, I find it brings insecurities and fears to the surface. My post addresses all of this, giving concrete tips for planning a great event for both readers and listeners and offering up ways to ensure that the event moves the needle forward on your project, rather than scratching it.

And if you don’t know Hedgebrook, you should. It’s a magical, mystery place for women writers on Whidbey Island. A literary nonprofit, their mission is to support visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. Hedgebrook offers writing residencies, master classes and salons. In other words, it’s the shit. I want to go to there.

Have you read from your work? How’d it go? Any tips you’d like to share?

 

Join me for Lit Crawl Seattle

As many of you know, I’m petrified about reading from my upcoming coming-of-age memoir, There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: A True Tale of Double Ds, Straight As, and a Whole Lot of BS.

Until I’m actually at the mic.

Then, along with my words, I come alive. I’ve done a handful of readings over the past year and each time, I’m find myself on a high the likes of which I’ve never felt before. I feel exhilarated, buoyed, and motivated to keep creating and connecting with readers/listeners.

So naturally, I’m thrilled (read: petrified) to be speaking at this year’s LitCrawl Seattle, a night of more than 20 readings around town. The venues are chockablock with crazy talented writers so I hope you’ll hit one (read: mine) or several. I’ll be emceeing “No Place Like Home,” readings centering around family. Deb Caletti (Secrets of Wedding Ring River) and Sam Ligon (Drift and Swerve) will be reading fiction, and I’ll be reading a chapter from my memoir-in-progress. I hope to see you there!

October 23, 7–7:45pm | LitCrawl Seattle, “No Place Like Home” Reading
Ltd. Art Gallery/Raygun Lounge, 501 E Pine Street